Hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, has become a controversial topic across many areas- and now that includes workers’ comp.
After four deaths among workers since 2010, the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) said that workers were exposed to excessive amounts of hydrocarbons and are investigating risks of fracking.
The process of fracking pushes sand and water deep into shale deposits to “fracture” the rock, thus freeing up oil and gas When that sand/water mixture comes back up to the surface, it contains a dangerous mixture of chemicals. The mixture is full of hydrocarbons and is usually stored in pits or bins. Workers are exposed to toxins as they measure the levels by hand or do other work around the substance.
Hydrocarbons can affect the nervous system, lungs and eyes, as well as lead to an abnormal heart rate.
Adding to the threat from hydrocarbons, machines move huge piles of sand which give off clouds of dust containing the dangerous compound silica and other breathable toxins. Workplace safety expert Eric Esswein visited 11 different sites and found that 79 percent of sampled collected from the sites surpassed the exposure limit set by NIOSH. Almost a third of the samples had levels of more than 10 times the recommended limit. He said that though workers wore masks, they would be virtually useless against the high levels of silica.
Breathing in silica from sand can lead to cancer or silicosis, and more established professions like mining or manufacturing have already witnessed the hazards firsthand. Since fracking is a relatively new field of work, and a fast-moving field of work (once workers set up a well they move on) there is not as much data on how much workers are exposed and what level of risk they are really facing.
Some drillers have taken notice and tried to set up better safety precautions like using vacuums on the machines to try and suck up sand dust before it reaches workers. The agency has also asked drillers to look for better ways to measure fluid levels that would not require workers to go in as close to the chemicals.